White House Wednesday: Behind the Stanchions | The Davis Bust

By Brianna Kirk
Lead Historical Interpreter

Everyone likes getting new things. With the holidays just past, many are enjoying new gifts as they start the new year.

Historians like getting new things, too. One of the rewards of working in a historic home is the plethora of artifacts that are donated. Each comes with its own interesting, and often fascinating, story.

Recently, a small bust of Jefferson Davis was donated to the museum. It too came with a story. A newspaper account from the period noted that the bust was found upon “a mantelpiece in the mansion lately occupied by Jeff. Davis” and that it occupied a “conspicuous position, wrapped up in a small Confederate flag, and suspended by the neck.”[1]

While many visitors chuckle at that story when shared, it offers a unique window into the world the Civil War made and the minds of Americans in the immediate post-war period.

Though I can only briefly discuss it during tours, I am very interested in the thoughts of everyday Americans after the Confederate armies surrendered in the spring and summer of 1865. The weeks and months after men like Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union forces were fragile times for the recently saved country, and much had to be decided on how to stitch the Union back together. With hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers and ruined landscapes, Civil War era Americans had to deal with many of the war’s outcomes very soon after its conclusion.

There were many pressing items to be considered in the war’s aftermath. For instance, what should be done with those who had seceded from the Union? Abraham Lincoln’s assassination struck fear into the hearts of both Northerners and Southerners, fear that a war that had just ended might start again. The psychological impact of a long and bloody war affected people of every class, race, gender, military status, and age. Each group expressed its feelings of uncertainty about the future in different ways.

Southerners experienced the war close to home, sometimes in their backyards. Most Northerners did not witness the war’s destruction, and only read about it in the newspapers. In the end, each person struggled to understand the war and its consequences in his or her own way.

About our Davis bust, why was a Union soldier motivated to suspend a bust of the Confederate president using a Confederate flag as a noose? What message was he trying to convey by doing so? What had he seen on the battlefield or elsewhere that influenced his decision?

 It is hard for us to imagine today what it was like for Americans during the months after the Civil War. The war had lasted four years—far longer than the three months some had anticipated. Slavery was abolished. The southern states were part of the Union again. The President had been killed and was replaced by Andrew Johnson. The process of transitioning from a society at war to a society at peace was under way.

Viewing the Civil War from the perspectives of those who lived it and experienced it allows us today to empathize with those who lived before us, and to better understand this time in our history. We discover those perspectives through unexpected and surprising stories from our past.

 

[1] The Tri-Weekly News, June 24, 1865.

Comments

Davis

Had Davis been considered a 'true' (the US did not recognize the Confederate States as a 'legitimate' combatant) head of state, perhaps his fate may have been different. Lee's situation was different in that he was a paroled soldier (albeit a tenuous parole that had a lot to do with Grant's good will and his 'going to bat' for him). For the most part, it's difficult to identify a similar situation in history where a victorious element dealt with such leniency to a defeated opponent.

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